UND researchers document life in man camps

William Caraher, associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota, documents what’s left of a camp site that housed temporary workers in Tioga, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

TIOGA, N.D. – An RV camp here that was recently full of workers and their families is now abandoned with wooden pallets, a dozen coolers, a set of dumbbells and other debris left behind.

Researchers studying North Dakota’s man camps retraced their steps Saturday to find that their favorite camp from their visit six months ago is now deserted.

Some of the camping spots appeared to have been abandoned fairly recently – and quickly – with a six-pack of beer, food in some of the coolers and a rug still hanging on a clothesline.

The team of University of North Dakota professors, an archaeologist and a photographer are touring the Oil Patch this weekend to continue their work on the North Dakota Man Camp Project, which involves studying the social and material conditions of workforce housing.

They visited Tioga, Wheelock and Williston on Saturday and will tour the Watford City area today.

William Caraher, associate professor of history, said initially the team planned to visit western North Dakota once for the research, but they discovered the study was too big for one trip and that conditions are evolving.

Bret Weber, assistant professor of social work, said the lack of housing is a nexus for all other social issues.

“In one way it all either directly or indirectly comes back to housing,” Weber said.

The group is studying three types of camps: the large, organized crew camps, less formal RV parks and trailer courts that have water and sewer hookups and the most rustic camps, which lack water and electricity.

Archaeologist Richard Rothaus said the abandoned camp in Tioga affirmed his expectation that the most primitive camps will be the ones to leave behind the most artifacts for future generations to find.

“The more organized the camp, the less there will be left,” said Rothaus, owner of consultant firm Trefoil Cultural and Environmental.

Weber said that camp, which lacked utility hookups, housed workers who were working on construction projects in town and the men, women and children had been eager to share their stories.

“The people were fantastically welcoming,” Weber said.

Weber, who is interviewing residents, said he’s found that many who live in the most organized crew camps often want to move to RV parks so they can have their own space, a grill, invite visitors and enjoy a greater sense of community.

Bret Weber, right, assistant professor of social work at the University of North Dakota, interviews oil truck driver Clint Brees in Tioga, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Caraher and Rothaus take photos and thoroughly document each park they visit for aspects such as their heating source, foam insulation and shipping pallets used for walkways or decks.

“They’re really inventive,” Caraher said of how some residents winterize their RVs.

One of the group’s goals is to document the living conditions of the oil boom so people in the future will know what it was like.

Renowned photographer Kyle Cassidy traveled from Philadelphia to accompany them this weekend. He is taking portraits of people in the Oil Patch to make the research project more visually dynamic.

Cassidy’s documentary photography book “Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes” received recognition including being named to Amazon’s list of “Best 10 Art Books of 2007.”

Cassidy said this trip to North Dakota was a “fact-finding” mission for him and he expects to be back to photograph more.

“I’m very motivated by meeting people that I would never have met in my ordinary life and hearing their stories,” Cassidy said.

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